CLEVELAND (AP) — Sharks, including a big blue one up north, are circling the troubled waters around Ohio State's maimed and maligned football program.
As the school anxiously awaits potential NCAA sanctions and further public shame from the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal that has already claimed coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, schools like rival Michigan, Big Ten newcomer Nebraska, and reawakened Notre Dame could be poised to tear a few chunks off the battered Buckeyes.
Recruiting, you see, is a bloodsport all its own.
Though it's too early to fully assess what impact Ohio State's present problems — and any future troubles it may face once the NCAA has its say — will have on recruiting, it's clear the Buckeyes could take some major hits.
They may have already.
On Friday, Tom Strobel, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound junior defensive end from Mentor, Ohio, committed to the Wolverines, who under new coach Brady Hoke figure to benefit from Ohio State's mess more than any other school. Although Strobel said Michigan's academics ultimately swayed him to choose the Big Blue over the Buckeyes, the team he's cheered for since his childhood, threatening storm clouds enshrouding Columbus certainly didn't help Ohio State's cause.
"When I filled out Strobel's evaluation card after talking to him, I wrote down, '95 percent going to Ohio State,'" CBS College Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. "I thought he was a lock and I thought the Top 10 recruits in Ohio would all end up going to Ohio State.
"But now, with Tressel gone and so much uncertainty hanging over the program, I'm not so sure."
What's clear at this point is that Ohio State has an image problem, one that could potentially turn off prospective players — mainly ones from outside Ohio — who, like everyone else, have spent the past several weeks watching a college football giant dropped to its kneepads.
Tressel's resignation, followed just one week later by Pryor's decision to bolt before his senior season, have tarnished the program. And things could get much worse for Ohio State after a meeting in August, when the school is scheduled to appear before the NCAA's committee on infractions.
There could be long-term consequences. It's possible the Buckeyes will be banned for several years from postseason play, suffer a substantial reduction in scholarships, and perhaps even be stripped of conference titles.
Whatever the outcome, Ohio State may not seem as inviting to blue-chippers, who could be turned off by what has transpired or what lies ahead.
"Kids go to Ohio State because of its tradition, the chance to play for and win a national championship and maybe to someday go to the NFL," said Lemming, who has charted recruiting's growth from underground curiosity to big-time business over the past 32 years. "What has happened there could turn away kids if they want to play in a bowl game or if the scholarships are taken away and they are no longer among the elite.
"There's a lot at stake."
Well, one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity, as the saying goes, and other schools could benefit from Ohio State's dramatic fall.
"Michigan, man," said Doug Plank, a former Ohio State and NFL defensive back now working for NCSA, a recruiting firm that connects athletes and their families with schools. "They are back in the recruiting business in Ohio."
For 10 years, Tressel owned the state. He made it a priority to keep Ohio's best playing in their backyard. However, his departure has created a huge opening for Hoke, the Wolverines' first-year coach who laid the foundation for recruiting in his home state when he was a Michigan assistant and obviously sees it as a priority.
Hoke has already landed several Ohio stars, and is making a hard push for Cincinnati Taft's Adolphus Washington, a defensive end considered by many to be the biggest prize in the Buckeye state.
"There's no doubt he's going after Ohio kids," Strobel said, "and I think he's going to be able to get a few."
Not long after Tressel stepped down, Kyle Kalis, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior offensive lineman from St. Edward High outside Cleveland decided he was moving on, too. He called interim Ohio State coach Luke Fickell intent on telling him he was de-committing from the Buckeyes.
Kalis, though, was persuaded to stay following a 45-minute conversation by Fickell, who may find himself having future talks with waffling recruits.
Fickell's not concerned about the torrents of negativity directed at the Buckeyes. He's going to continue promoting his alma mater's finest qualities.
"It's about something so much greater than just one situation, one player or one coach," Fickell said during his introductory news conference this week. "We've recruited that for the last 10 years and we truly believe that Ohio State will continue to attract the best student-athletes around the country. We're looking for a few good men and ones that can stand up and understand what Ohio State is all about."
During recent on-campus visits with recruits and their families, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has noticed an increase in questions about the school's values, discipline, accountability and internal expectations — all queries he believes are a direct result of Ohio State's situation.
The Buckeyes' issues may allow the Wildcats to recruit players they otherwise would have passed up or had no chance of signing.
"As a staff, we talked about kids that are interested in Ohio State that are high-academic kids (who) may now open up the recruiting a little bit more in the state of Ohio," Fitzgerald said. "Maybe, (Ohio State) might lose a few battles with a school and a school fills up, then we might win a few battles because of just the numbers game. I think it's way too early to tell, but I think you can at least hypothesize on what might happen."
Wanting kids is one thing, getting them is another.
Just because Ohio State's reputation has taken a pounding and more hard knocks could be coming, recruiting experts agree there will be a large group of players who will remain loyal to the scarlet and gray much the way Alabama-born players stuck by the Crimson Tide and California kids stayed true to USC during tumultuous times at those schools.
"Ohio State has a huge stranglehold over the elite players in the state," said Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep Magazine. "Most of the kids who grew up in Ohio want to be a Buckeye, and 90 percent of those kids don't care what's going on right now down there. I don't think they're worried about what happens there in the future because it's something that will go away — and it will.
"A lot of those kids will look at it and say, 'Ohio State needs me now more than ever.' And Ohio State will be able to tell kids, 'We really need you'."
It's in out-of-state recruiting where things could change for Ohio State. Wallace believes Fickell and his staff will target only non-Ohio players whom they feel already like the school because of pre-existing ties through a family member or friend. Wallace said Ohio State can combat any backlash caused by the scandal by being more selective.
In fact, Wallace feels Ohio State could emerge on the other side with few recruiting scars. It may take the NCAA several months to reveal its findings, time the Buckeyes can use to their advantage.
"At this stage, it's still Ohio State, a highly formidable recruiting power," Wallace said. "They will still be able to load up with players."
So far, that's the case.
As he prepared to play in this week's Big 33 Football Classic, an annual all-star game pitting Ohio's top high school players against Pennsylvania's elite, linebacker Ejuan Price from Woodland Hills (Pa.) High School said nothing has shaken his commitment to go to Ohio State.
"I know what kind of people they are," Price said. "Everybody makes mistakes. They're still good people."
AP Sports Writers Genaro Armas in State College, Pa., Andrew Seligman in Chicago and Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.